Two Players

Taunton, early season 2017. As the sun fades, the blustery wind starts to chill the bones. Any county ground after play ends has a feeling of spent energy, a feeling of faded drama, a feeling of reflection, as evening settles in. This is as true of Cheltenham in high summer as it is of Taunton in bitter mid-April, a time in which cricket never feels natural, but where it is increasingly required to dwell.

At the Cooper Associates County Ground in Taunton, outside the nondescript, functional pavilion named after Andy Caddick, players often congregate after play. They will sign autographs for the men, mostly near or past pension age, who are always there with their albums and books.

The attention is drawn to a youngish man from the east of England with a fresh, windswept complexion. You sense that he always looks like this, but recent time spent in Sri Lanka has enhanced his cricketer's tan. He is surrounded by his family and friends; there is a transparent air of humour, of expectation, of cheerfulness and of hope; of wondering what the coming season holds. At this point he doesn't know it, but for Tom Westley this will be the best season of his young career. He will play in a team which wins the County Championship, and he will do something he has always dreamed of; he will play Test cricket for England. He is right to look hopeful, because he will enjoy what is to come. He will be tested by it, and, after a promising beginning, he will fail that test, but he will end the season in the same frame of mind. This time, though, it will be hope of a recall, of another opportunity. Lose that, and you lose everything.

Scrolling forward to another time and place in England's south-west, we see an older player, one who doesn't hope to play for England anymore because he has no need to. That dream has come, and it has gone.

The County Ground, Exeter, August 2017. Devon are playing Berkshire. With a typically diligent and innovative innings behind him, Chris Read walks around the boundary with his young son. Read is revered in his adopted home city of Nottingham, but now he is back in the county of his birth and his cricketing roots. He is a small man, with few unusual or distinguishing features, and someone who self-evidently feels uncomfortable in the limelight. If you knew nothing of his achievements, you would pass him in the street without a moment's thought. And he would be happy with that.

As Read stops by a well-known local sports photographer, who graciously allows his son to look through his camera's all-seeing lens, you can't prevent your mind going back to the time, more than twenty years before, when you last saw him play for Devon. He was just a kid of 16 then, with a burgeoning reputation in his native Torbay, and the same preternatural assurance behind the stumps which would see him to more than one thousand dismissals in first-class cricket. He could always bat too; not especially stylishly, but with an innate ability to seize the moment. This is a man who knows what it is like to play in front of full houses at Lord's and to win one-day trophies; to play Test cricket in the West Indies, in Australia, in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But, for good or ill, for most of his career, his natural home, his place of work, has been the county circuit, with its grounds, its devotees and its constantly evolving cast of participants.

English county cricket is a secure and civilised world. An environment which few would wish to leave behind, but for different reasons, these are two players, at distinct points in their careers, who want, or even need, to do so. In Read's case it is the march of time, with Westley it is the need to see if he can be what he has always wanted to be.

Every season, indeed every match, of an English county season is full of vignettes like this, and, as the light changes as autumn sets in, and the leaves begin to turn, they settle in the mind. One player's horizons beginning to expand, but simultaneously on the point of faltering, another's narrowing, fading, reverting.

Neither of them is especially upset about this, although, as he leaves the scene of one of his Test match failures, Westley's mind will be flooded with doubt and concern. And as Read is applauded to and from the crease on the occasion of his final game at Trent Bridge, he can be excused a moment or two of wistful sadness, even if it is usually no more his way than that of any other professional sportsman.

From the Victorian era onwards, so many aphorisms, truisms and cliches have been uttered about the qualities and values of the game of cricket that it can sometimes be hard to be sure where realistic appraisal ends and romantic fiction begins. But the English county game, especially when played over four days, continues, even in its marginalisation, to embody something unique, and, in its way, beautiful and life-affirming.

At the heart of this are the players, with all their hopes, fulfilments and regrets. When the 2018 county season begins, Chris Read will be elsewhere and he will have nothing but fulfilling memories and, perhaps, a few regrets, while Tom Westley will still be there, at Taunton, or Chelmsford or even Worcester, full, again, of hope.

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